The year was 1987.
People grooved to the synth sounds of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” The Lunar New Year Parade was decked out in rabbit ears. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was still Mayor Dianne Feinstein, and a now-nonexistent freeway towered over The Embarcadero.
In an era of big hair and big dreams, public transportation advocate Rick Laubscher and others dreamed of a new streetcar along the waterfront: the E-Embarcadero.
The E would run from the foot of the Embarcadero Freeway past Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason. Originally conceived by San Francisco Tomorrow in the 1970s, it wasn’t until Feinstein backed the project in the ’80s that the trolley’s future was secured.
Fast forward some three decades, and the E has yet to launch, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Muni’s E-Embarcadero will finally roll starting Aug. 1.
“It takes a tremendous amount of patience to make dreams come true in San Francisco,” Laubscher said.
The E-Embarcadero will run along the F-Market’s route from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Ferry Building. At that point, the two lines will split. The F will continue inland on Market Street along its usual route to the Castro, and the E will continue along the N-Judah’s Embarcadero route to the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets near AT&T Park.
“We’re pleased to be expanding our historic streetcar service along the Embarcadero from Fisherman’s Wharf to 4th and King,” said Ed Reiskin, SFMTA Director of Transportation. “The new E-Line creates more capacity and reduces crowding on the enormously popular waterfront of San Francisco.”
Though it will launch with weekend-only service, the E will run daily starting next year, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni.
As for Laubscher, he is now the president of the Market Street Railway Association. He works hand in hand with the SFMTA to secure and restore historic trolleys for the F and now E lines.
“What I’m happy about is that the streetcars themselves have proven public transit doesn’t have to be dowdy or dirty,” Laubscher told the San Francisco Examiner. “You can draw people out of their automobiles willingly, if you give them a truly attractive alternative.”
He’s referring to the physical beauty of the streetcars. They often feature wood paneling and art deco light fixtures, like public transit out of a 1940s film noir story.
For years, Muni slammed the brakes on the project, Laubscher said, and only in the past decade or so has the SFMTA shifted its culture toward experimentation. He called Ed Reiskin, chief of the SFMTA, a “champion” of the E line.
Before Reiskin’s time, two decades ago, the SFMTA dipped its toes into running historic trolleys. The F line only ran down Market Street. In 2000, the F route was extended to Fisherman’s Wharf, which to this day bursts with 20,000 to 25,000 daily riders.
Since the F is often at capacity, transit planners jockeyed for more trolley service, driving the launch of the E line.
SFMTA confirmed it also had a tough time training operators systemwide.
Though the launch is close, the “E dream” still is not fully realized. The last leg of the trip — chugging the trolley down to Fort Mason — is still in planning phases.
That project recently cleared an environmental review process, Laubscher said, and one day the E-Embarcadero may chug through an old tunnel that links Aquatic Park to Fort Mason.
Looking back at the three-decade struggle for the E-Embarcadero, even Sen. Feinstein had hope that the E-line may finally be realized.
“I congratulate the SFMTA on finally achieving this milestone, one we envisioned when I was Mayor,” Feinstein wrote in an email to the Examiner. “Most especially, I am extremely proud of the Market Street Railway Association, led by Rick Laubscher, for their tireless advocacy; without their support, this never would have come to fruition. Now, onto the next challenge — extend the line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason!”
Market Street Railway is looking for volunteer docents to guide riders at key stops along the E-line during its launch from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 1 and 2. Sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.